Feed on

By Maria Rodriguez

The Tradition of Blue Willow: How does the generational gap and disconnect from the Irish homeland affect cultural traditions on Beaver Island such as the meaning of “blue willow” ceramics?

Figure 1. Blue willow soup plate.

For the Irish, traditions passed down from one generation to the next have played a large role in daily life. From the sean-nós-inspired music to the religious celebrations emphasizing St. Bridget and St. Patrick, the sense of community and celebration was and is deeply embedded in their cultural ways (Ó Droighneáin 2011). With a history of immigration, however, many of the Irish cultural customs have been influenced and altered. One tradition in particular which has evolved is that of the blue willow, a Chinese inspired ceramic (Figure 1). The symbolic meaning linked with the blue willow has transformed here in America as generations of Irish youth have become disconnected from the Irish homeland.

Although urban Irish American communities have been extensively studied, new research shows that the changing tradition of the blue willow can also be found in isolated immigrant communities such as that of the Árainn Mhór people on Beaver Island, Michigan. Through the analysis of the Gallagher homestead on Beaver Island, which was inhabited by two generations of an Irish immigrant family, it is possible to see that the symbolic meaning and traditional use of the blue willow ceramic changed from one generation to the next possibly due to the island’s disconnect from the Irish mainland and the cultural effects of the Beaver Island Lumber Company.

Background: The Blue Willow

             Blue transfer-printed whiteware china known as “blue willow” holds great meaning and prominence in Irish history. Found in almost every home or establishment, the blue willow pattern depicts a classic forbidden love scene that is relatable and enticing. In an old poem, the forbidden love story was told by mothers to their children as follows:

“So she tells me a legend centuries old

Of a Mandarin rich in lands and gold,

Of Koong-Shee fair and Chang the good,

Who loved each other as lovers should.

How they hid in the gardener’s hut awhile,

Then fled away to the beautiful isle.

Though a cruel father pursued them there,

And would have killed the hopeless pair,

But kindly power, by pity stirred,

Changed each into a beautiful bird.


Here is the apple tree where they talked,

Here they are running away,

And over all at the top you see,

The birds making love alway(s)” (Dessoie 2010)


Aside from being an affordable piece of china that could be displayed throughout the home, the message of freedom from restriction can be thought of as symmetrical to the many Catholic Irish who faced persecution during their lives (Fitzgerald et al. 2011). A symbol of hope and a better future, the blue willow could have made its way into the heart of the Irish tradition and into the culture of everyday life.

Blue Willow on Beaver Island

In the analysis of artifacts from the Gallagher Homestead, it is clear that the first-generation Irish family, John and Margaret Early who occupied the home from 1882-1912, was fond of the blue willow. With at least eight different vessels of blue willow transfer print whiteware recovered during excavations (Rotman et al 2011: 223), the ceramic was a part of everyday Irish life on the island. Its prominence makes sense considering the symbolic meaning many from Ireland attach to the blue willow. In an account given by Caroline Carr of the Donegal County Council in Ireland, the blue willow is described as a favored china used only when important visitors came to the house and was “more of a status symbol- the more you had displayed and not used”(Rotman et al. 2011: 225). A symbol of ancestry and in some cases luck, this meaning of the blue willow could have been brought over the first generation Earlys’ themselves.

 It is interesting to note that  even the German family, Joseph and Mary Warner, who lived in the homestead before the Earlys’, has blue willow archaeologically connected to them. Although not Irish themselves, they lived in a community full of Irish families and Mrs. Warner even lived with the Early family after her husband died (Collar 2011). With the blue willow used possibly to show friendship, this German family could have been given or used the blue willow as acknowledgment of their acceptance into the Irish community (Rotman and Clay 2008).

 The second-generation of Earlys’ occupied the homestead from mid-1880s to about 1912 (Collar 2011). The archaeological record from this occupation reveals that something changed in terms of the tradition of blue willow. Although vessels were associated with the second-generation, none of them were the blue willow pattern (Rotman et al. 2011:223). Why is this so? With blue willow obviously prominent in the first-generation of Earlys’, why is it that the second-generation decided to abandon the ceramic all together? One reason could be that the second-generation of Earlys’ began to see the blue willow in a different light. With the introduction of the culturally-diverse Beaver Island Lumber Company to the Michigan island at around the same time Patrick and Mary Early began to occupy the house, it would have been easy for the second-generation Irish American family to pick up on how the rest of the world was viewing this traditional Irish china.

Outside the isolated island in urban Irish communities, such as that of Five Points in New York, the traditional blue willow print was seen as “preferred by non-elite families” (Rotman et al. 2011:224). Overproduced, it was thought of as cheap and associated with people of low social status (Rotman et al. 2011:224).  The workers at the Beaver Island Lumber Company could have possibly brought these ideas towards blue willow with them challenging its traditional meaning of love, hope, and family. In order to fit into the changing culture of the island and secure a comfortable future, Patrick and Mary Early could have abandoned the blue willow seeing it no longer for its traditional meaning, but as a symbol of Irish tradition and “backwardness,” an object holding their generation back from the new American life.

Questions regarding the tradition of the Irish and blue willow on Beaver Island:

  1. How could disconnect from Ireland have caused the second generation to view the importance of blue willow differently?
  2. What would Irish traditions on Beaver Island have looked like today if the Beaver Island Lumber Company had not been established?
  3. What is the symbolic meaning behind blue willow today? Is it now a part of the tradition of Irish identity?

Literature Cited

Collar, Helen

2011 Beaver Island History Census: Biographical Papers Letter E. Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University


Dessoie, Mary

 2010 China Lovers Heaven: the Staffordshire Potteries. Times Publishing


Fitzgerald, Patrick, Brian Lambkin, and Deborah Rotman

2011, Lecture on Migration in Irish History, Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh, Northern Ireland.

Ó Droighneáin, Dónal

            2011. Lecture on Irish Folklore and Storytelling, Carna, Ireland.

Rotman, Deborah, Catherine Ahern, Rhiannon Duke, Bianca Fernandez, and Jackie Thomas

2011  Irish Immigrant Experiences at the Gallagher Residential Site (20cx201), Beaver Island, Charlevoix County, Michigan: Results of the 2010 Archaeological Field School. The University of Notre Dame.

Comments are closed.